Peacefully cycling the two sides of the Irish divide

Gareth Lloyd got on his bike in Ireland and rode from south to north. In the process he visited the sites of old battles - and discovered 51 varieties of rain
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The Independent Travel
THE twin circumstances of the Tour de France starting in Ireland this year - plus the little matter of peace breaking out in Northern Ireland - had tempted me to cycle the road from Belfast to Dublin.

It was hard to regret my decision on my last day as I free-wheeled down to the shores of a small lake outside Belfast, where a hand-painted sign at the sign of the road proclaimed: "Enter where you will spend eternity - lost or saved." I surveyed a landscape that looked like a Turner water colour and thought that an eternity in this place might not be such a bad thing.

But just like the peace talks, things hadn't been quite so blissful to begin with.

If the Eskimos have 50 words to describe types of snow, then surely the Irish have 51 for rain. On the first leg of the journey from Dublin to Drogheda I'd experienced every last one of them. From the soft mists that enveloped my skin like a soothing balm, to the hard and heavy, horizontal onslaughts that made me yearn for a beach holiday in Barbados.

I arrived in the dark, dank town of Drogheda, a drowned but happy rat. It had been a slow, soggy-slog along the hard shoulder of the N1 highway from Dublin, but I'd made it. Dripping wet and chilled to the bone, I checked into the first guest house I came to.

According to the landlady, Sioban, "Drogheda's main claim to fame is that Cromwell called by in September 1649 and slaughtered a few thousand of the Catholic residents." Anglo-Irish torment? Understandably, I wasn't too desperate to explore the town.

I was hungry though, so crossing the bridge over the Guinness-black Boyne I found myself in Drogheda's docklands. This was the place that formed the basis of the town's wealth during the industrial boom years, but these days the mills and warehouses lie empty; awaiting their turn for redevelopment into luxury flats or offices. Not far away from where a hulking ship lay brooding I found an unpretentious bistro called The Quay Restaurant. After gorging garlic bread and pizza, I walked back with the comforting smell of burning peat and coal hanging in the air.

By 11 o'clock the next morning I'd had a full Irish breakfast, stood inside the fabulous New Grange prehistoric passage grave, and walked the peaceful glen where the Battle of the Boyne took place on 1 July 1690 (and resisted the temptation of an early morning pint in one of the dockside pubs). The roads were empty, the sun was shining and there was a stiff breeze to help me on my way.

As I left the Boyne Valley, the countryside opened out into a rolling landscape of ridiculously green fields, intersected by an impenetrable lattice of yellow gorse bushes. Farms and cottages squatted down in hollows, out of reach of the gusting wind that pressed the trees. I took a narrow lane down to the wide sandy beach at Clogher Cove and cycled my way through the waves.

At the north end of the beach I swung away from the water and passed two tiny thatched fisherman's cottages on the very edge of the high tide mark. I rejoined a road that flirted and teased the coast as it moved northwards, through placid, parochial villages and fertile farm land, and onwards to Blackrock, where I planned to spend the night.

Blackrock is a sleepy seaside town that the world has never discovered, let alone forgotten. The sea-front is a succession of newly-painted pubs, houses and restaurants staring quietly across the fickle waters of Dundalk Bay and beyond to the spectacularly silhouetted Cooley Mountains. I took a room at Blackrock House B&B, where Brenda, the landlady, described my stay before it had really begun.

"It's strange you know. Most people arrive in the afternoon, sleep for two hours, go for a meal and a few pints in the pub before going to bed again."

And so it was. I woke at 7pm, two hours after I'd gone to bed, and after a bar snack, made my way to the New Gates Inn - a functional drinking den just a short stagger from my guest house. As I entered the pub everything went quiet, but by the end of my first Guinness I'd had my wit tested and was enjoying the "crack" and banter at the bar. Several pints later I said a heartfelt "goodbye" to new friends, before returning to my bed to be lulled to sleep by the sound of gentle waves breaking on the shore.

Early the next morning I found myself skirting around the north side of Dundalk Bay, where the Cooleys tumble into the sea. The main road was too busy, so I cut up along the small lanes and tracks past solitary houses, isolated farms and abandoned hovels dozing amongst the heather and grazing sheep. As I rounded the headland I was confronted with the full splendour of Carlingford Lough, and the purple and gold-flecked Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland, a mere handshake away.

The charming village of Carlingford retains a distinctly medieval feel, with solid white-washed cottages lining the tangle of narrow lanes around its two castles. St Patrick stopped here on his way to introduce Christianity to Ireland more than 1,000 years earlier. I stopped for a sandwich on my way to Rostrevor on the opposite side of the lough, feeding my crusts to the swans and ducks that bobbed on the waves.

A few miles on from Carlingford I realised I'd crossed the border when I saw a Newry County Council works van. I was disappointed not to have passed some kind of milestone at such an important point in my journey; but it was better than encountering an incongruous army check-point or surveillance post.

From the bustling market town of Newry, I made my way along the north side of the lough to Rostrevor, a picturesque town of Victorian terraces clambering up the slopes of Slieve Martin. I spent the night at the Tobar Guest House, where the owners, Jim and Marie Gavaghan, entertained me with stories of the giants who lived in the mountains, over mugs of hot, sweet cocoa.

The next morning I set off on a lung-bursting trip through the Mourne Mountains on the last leg of my journey. It was soon obvious why the locals call the Mournes "Ireland's Bronte Country". The mountains are a beautifully desolate place of moorland, forest and mires; where a patchwork of improved farmland gives way to heather and bracken on the higher and steeper slopes.

As I climbed upwards the weather changed. The sun disappeared and it got colder. Clouds flitted across the sun altering the landscape from warm and serene, to cold and inhospitable, then back again.

On the roads through Kilcoo, Castlewellian and Ballynahinch I was treated to a roller coaster ride up and and down the drumlins. With a good head of steam and the wind at my back I found I could make it up one hill and down the next, through a stunning fake postcard-style scenery of deep blue lakes, and fields full of new born lambs.

By the time I'd rolled into Carryduff the road signs were telling me I was just eight miles from Belfast. The final few miles into the city were blissfully downhill all the way, giving me the chance to appreciate the great view of the mountains surrounding the city and the natural harbour of the lough; which made the city look like some kind of Hibernian Rio.

As my bike came to a halt on the Belfast's Ormeau Bridge, I felt a pang of sadness that my adventure was over. But 160 miles and four days on a bike had been enough. Besides, I still had a Saturday night out in Belfast to look forward to (and some saddle sores to tend).

ireland fact file

Flights

Aer Lingus (tel. 0645 737 747) and Ryanair (tel. 0541 569 569) fly to the republic from around pounds 77 return. British Midland Airways (tel. 0345 554 554) and British Airways (tel. 0345 222 111) fly to Belfast for around pounds 69 return. All airlines accept bicycles but check the conditions of carriage.

Trains & Ferries

For journeys involving a combination of train and ferry travel call National Rail Enquires (tel. 0345 484 950) for times and prices. Useful ferries include: Holyhead-Dun Laoghaire (Stena Sealink, tel. 01233 647 047), and Stranraer-Belfast (Seacat Scotland, tel.0990 523 523).

Cycle Hire & Packages

Irish Cycle Hire (Drogheda, Co Louth, Ireland; tel. 00353 41 41 067) offers one-way bicycle rental from pounds 7 per day or all-in packages from pounds 260 for eight days.

Maracycle

An extra incentive to cycle between Dublin and Belfast is the 15th and final Maracycle 1998, a 200-mile fun cycle race. This two-day event starts on Friday 26 June and participants can raise money for the charity of their choice. Details from Co-operation North (tel: 01232 321 462).

Information

Irish Tourist Board (tel: 0171 493 3201); Northern Ireland Tourist Board (tel: 01232 231 221).

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